• November 10, 2022
  • by Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros

Excerpt #1: The Power of an Idea

The following text is an excerpt from the book The Power of an Idea: A Moment in Time with Alfredo Jaar and Luis Pérez-Oramas, published by Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros in 2022.

Short Circuit in the City

: I’d like to ask you about one of your first pieces: Estudios sobre la Felicidad, 1979–81 [Studies on Happiness, 1979–81]. It turns out that you began that work—your work—asking people, "Are you happy?" and you did it at a moment of almost unquestionable collective unhappiness, during the horrific dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.

ALFREDO JAAR (AJ): It was 1979 and I was twenty-three years old, finishing up my architecture degree. Because I hadn’t studied art formally, my knowledge of art was very limited so it was very natural for me to do a kind of art that confronted the world in a very public way. That’s exactly what we do as architects, because there is no such thing as private architecture.

Architecture may be the most public form of art, so that is most likely why it was very natural for me to work outside, in the public space. Obviously during the dictatorship there was a serious problem with censorship, there were so many things you couldn’t say. Because of this, we artists had to learn a new language, the language of speaking without speaking, of speaking between the lines. This new language may have been connected to poetry, to metaphor, to a series of suggestive strategies, linguistic and other, that articulated things without saying them openly. It was a question of survival. It was that or they "disappeared" you. And so I wanted to do a participatory project and one of the big problems at the time was that in Chile there was no voting, people’s opinions were not consulted, and there was no democratic process whatsoever. The idea was to envision an action that could be interesting within that very hopeless situation. If you could invent something, invent a democratic model inside this very non-democratic space, well, that would be something like the perfect work. That was the work to create at that moment, during a dictatorship.

What could the model for this be? I began to conceptualize it, and I said to myself, "All right, you’re going to have to involve the public somehow, you’re going to have to include images on the street, in the city, some kind of strategy for communication, for consultation, to allow people to express themselves." But of course I had to do it in such a way that wouldn’t risk my life or the lives of the people who agreed—in an almost suicidal manner—to be a part of this craziness.

I came up with several possible approaches. I imagined different ideas, different topics around which I might articulate this whole process. Until finally I said to myself, "Alfredo, you’re wasting time. Let’s get to the point. Let’s pick the most essential, most philosophical issue, which is, in fact, inevitable: happiness."

And then the title occurred to me right at the beginning, before I had fully laid out each phase. The reason it came to me was that, at the time, I had been reading Henri Bergson’s studies on laughter—during the dictatorship, let me tell you, it was a lot of fun to read this book. It was a very interesting escape valve. And so, as we say in Chile, muy patudamente [very cheekily] I steal the title from Bergson and decide to call my piece Estudios sobre la Felicidad [Studies on Happiness]. Of course, it sounded cocky and arrogant, but I told myself, "It doesn’t matter, this will give it a more serious, sober, and philosophical tone. As if this were a real investigation. Maybe that would help keep the military away, because they will think it was something of no importance, of no interest to them, something they’d be totally indifferent to." That’s how the title came about, and from there I went out to the street to ask my questions, with one friend who kept watch by the street corners in case any soldiers turned up, and another who took photographs of me doing the work. That’s how the project got started.

I would ask people if they were happy and to protect myself I had two questions prepared. The first one was, Are you happy? and the other one—because I really did need to protect myself—was something very general, something like, What percentage of the world’s population do you think is happy? So of course, with that kind of question what could the military really do to me, right? Then, once I was feeling more secure, when I saw that everything would be okay, I would ask them the next question, which was definitely more compromising under those circumstances: What percentage of the population in Chile do you think is happy? That was it, you see? I would throw those things out there and then I would give each person a little mint, a little mint so that they could deposit it, like a vote, in the box that corresponded to the percentage that they thought was happy.

This made the whole thing seem almost ridiculous and I would say to them, "Don’t worry if you don’t want to answer, just eat the mint." Then I would give them another mint and I would say, "If you don’t want to, don’t answer, just vote." The results showed that most people estimated that in the whole world only 20%—a bit more, 20% to 40%—were happy, and their results for Chile were quite similar. I was very interested in sociology, and so I invented all these stages to the survey as a way of getting to the main question. The idea was to give the project an air of scholarly research, but it was all a hoax. I was faking it, camouflaging what I was doing behind an academic disguise to lower the risk.

LPO: Of course. And did anyone catch on to the political dimension of the question?

AJ: No, the soldiers left me alone, to them I was more or less...

LPO: ...just another nut job on the street asking questions.

AJ: Yes, I mean, don’t you see what I looked like then? I was a hippie, my hair down to here, so I wasn’t a threat to them. And that was the beginning. That was the beginning...
Alfredo Jaar, Series of surveys (Estudios sobre la Felicidad [Studies on Happiness], 1979–81), 1980

Top image: Alfredo Jaar, Series of surveys (Estudios sobre la Felicidad [Studies on Happiness], 1979–81), 1980

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